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A Future Molded by Risk-taking and Innovation

Acadia Divinity College, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, has created the Futuring Lab, a dynamic space to conduct research on trends and developments that will impact the future life of the Church, as well as experiment with new approaches to theological education. The Lab has two inter-related elements: the Hub of Trend Research and Analysis to conduct, gather, and interpret research on cultural trends; and the Sandbox for Theological Education and the Church to experiment with new methods and pedagogies.

Karen Stiller interviewed Dr. Jodi Porter, Acadia Divinity College’s Director of Education for Ministry Innovation. She is overseeing the Futuring Lab, which is Acadia’s Pathways for Tomorrow project.

Can you briefly describe the project?

Our project, the Futuring Lab, encompasses the Hub of Trend Research and Analysis, and the Sandbox for Theological Education and the Church. Our goal is to integrate the discipline of future studies with theological education, so that we can anticipate what’s next in order to make strategic choices.

The Sandbox is where we experiment with institutional programs and pedagogies within the classroom. How does our research contribute to theological education? How do we best serve the college and support the Church?  

What are a few things you have learned so far?

I think part of what we will be learning, but are still figuring out, is how to do school change well. We talk about this being a liminal time for theological education and given that our smaller institution is embedded in a larger entity, alongside our energetic, excited leadership and colleagues, offers some unique possibilities. We have a good opportunity to change our school in ways that will be faithful for whatever is the next iteration of our work. This grant offers the potential to explore how to do change well.

In this context, we have space to experiment and try new things. For example, our president, Dr. Anna Robbins, did a listening tour and discovered a real need around mental health. We’ve hired a faculty member with expertise, and we’ll be offering more courses to students prepping for ministry who want to be better prepared for the mental health aspects they may encounter.

As the face of ministry changes, we’re providing micro-credential opportunities for alumni who recognize the need for additional leadership skills, whether in future studies or other pursuits. (We’ll have these opportunities available this summer.) We want to give students an opportunity to enhance their education, as they discern what they need as they are practicing ministry.

What has surprised you so far?

Despite having open-minded colleagues and being part of an institution that encourages change and innovation, we might still get in our own way, despite our best intentions. It’s surprising how even when you want to innovate, you can still get stuck.

We must ask ourselves: What is our identity in these times where the face of ministry and denominations – we are affiliated with the Baptist tradition – can be changing? Currently, we’re reading Ted Smith’s The End of Theological Education about how to envision theological education. Smith discusses the history of U.S. theological schools and seminaries, stating that on one hand we can be excited, while on the other hand we can be challenged about the future. However, we must take a moment or two to imagine what that future will be like to best serve our constituencies.

Can you tell us about some successes so far?

We’ve carved out and created a physical space, renovating an entire basement for our work. We set up several offices and space to conduct webinars. This was no small task, but I think that’s a win.

The grant-writing team has really thought about this work in a way that aligns with the long-standing institutional goals. This has garnered support for our work, reflecting another strong success.

Within the Sandbox, we’re working with three students, who want to learn more about the Baptist tradition, and creating more robust resources for participating churches. Our role includes helping them prepare to interview pastors. Through an independent study, they will earn credits, and provide valuable information for the Futuring Lab. Additionally within the Sandbox, we have an upcoming assessment day (I’m calling it Assessment Play), where I’ll be leading a creative way to approach that process. I hope that creativity will open more pathways to lead us toward innovation.

I’m generally hopeful for what the Pathways work can do for theological education, not only within our institution but also beyond. I’m excited to learn from what some of the other projects are doing in related areas and welcome the opportunity to meet and learn from new colleagues.

On the flip side, I hope to explore how to manage school change and uncover tools or practices that we can garner from and share with others. Acadia, situated within an evangelical sphere, is learning about decolonizing theological education and hopes to share that knowledge.

We have an exceptional team, consisting of a president, two associate deans, and an energetic faculty. We are well supported by ATS and the In Trust Center with the coordination efforts. Collectively, we hope to become helpful conversation partners in all these great things we do.

What else are you learning that could help other schools?

It’s tempting to do things quickly, before gathering sufficient data to do it well. I’m learning that one helpful way to approach this grant is a ‘both/and’ approach. We have this longer arc where we aim to gather good data to make informed innovation. For example, we may consider overhauling the M.Div. as a long-term goal.

But, what are the smaller wins you can attempt along the way so not to wait years to implement desired change? Even though we have a longer arc approach for significant changes in the M.Div. program, we’re making more immediate, incremental changes based on the ongoing feedback. For instance, we’re considering reducing a 90-credit program to a 72-credit program. We can make minor iterations even while making major adjustments.

Read more about Acadia’s Pathways for Tomorrow grant on their website.

Listen to In Trust Center's Good Governance podcast, Episode 54: A Sandbox for theological Education and the Church, here.

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